26 June 2006

A New View of Parkinson's

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Glasses make Parkinson’s sufferers future look brighter. A pair of glasses which uses virtual images could help people with Parkinson’s disease (PD) to cope with walking problems

Glasses make Parkinson’s sufferers future look brighter. A pair of glasses which uses virtual images could help people with Parkinson’s disease (PD) to cope with walking problems, scientists say. The device is now being tested in a couple of German clinics.

PD is a degenerative brain disease which affects 3% of people over 75 years, but can be contracted by younger men and women. Due to the loss of some brain cells, people with Parkinson’s don’t produce enough dopamine, a chemical messenger responsible for allowing humans to control their movements. Medication stimulating dopamine already exists, but they sometimes have no effect on some patients. Some sufferers are also afflicted by “freezing”, a condition that makes them unable to move once they stop, like Dietmar Wessel, 43, who has been living with PD for 17 years near Hofheim, Germany. « When I am ‘off’, I can stay sat up and see and hear, but I am unable to walk, or stand up, or even to use the phone. I am only half a man», says Dietmar. A freeze can last more than an hour – which can be very dangerous if one is in a car, on a staircase, or in the street.

Scientist and patients have both noticed that optical stimulations, like white stripes on the ground, or sound stimulations like rhythmic music, help the patients to focus and control their movement.

Using innovative IT technology and the latest scientific models, Parreha, an EU-funded project created in 2000, has managed to create a headset that reproduces the stimulant white stripes actually in the glasses. These can therefore help deliver PD patients from their frozen state. The project, now three years old, incorporates four engineering companies: the University of Athens, a European Parkinson’s Association (EUROPARK) and the EU joint research Centre. The headset, called ‘Indigo’, has a small screen on the side of the right eye. Black and white lights alternate on the screen, and sometimes brightly coloured spirals appear that scroll slowly towards the wearer as if they were walking down a tunnel. This little-understood effect is called kinesia paradoxa, and it allows a significant number of patients to stay active.

The headset, which is now in the phase of clinical testing, could be marketed from the end of 2005. “The potential is huge”, says Uberto Delprato, Project manager of Parreha. “We estimate that it could be used by about 10% of the PD patients in Europe. Which means that Indigo could help resolve the daily problems of 100,000 to 200,000 people”. The Indigo project manager outlines that every new prototype has been checked, criticised, improved, and sometimes rejected by patients groups. Indigo will be put on the market providing that trials are successful with every single patient, and only in co-operation with doctors. It should cost 2000 to 2500 Euros and will first be available in Germany, Italy and Great Britain.

People with PD should also soon be able to communicate with healthcare professionals via video-conferencing. The medical expert will be able to assess the patient’s motor performance, and adjust the rehabilitation routines according to the progress, without the patient ever having to leave home.

Doctors underline that patients must be trained to use the headset. Acceptance might be easier with technology-friendly young people than with older patients. But they emphasize that this is an easy option for helping PD patients, compared to the risky brain operations or drugs with frequent negative side effects.

The Italian company in charge of the commercialisation of Indigo hopes that the different national social security systems will take care of part or all of the price of the device, and that later, countries where PD associations will also become interested.

For people like Dietmar, this is a huge advantage. He greatly contributed to the development of the project, and feels now more safe and free in his home environment. “It improves my life quality. It is my safety net”- says Dietmar Wessel, who always carries the prototype. After all, falling is the second greatest cause of death of people with Parkinson’s…

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